To Learn Metric Forget Ye Olde English

Isaac Asimov

By The Metric Maven

My favorite author in High School was Isaac Asimov. My Grandfather in  Montana gushed about his writing, and gave me a book with Asimov’s essay Forget It!, which he said I simply had to read. In this essay Dr. Asimov looks over an arithmetic text book from 1797, by an author named Pike, and notes that it has much, much more information than a modern text. But the information contained, along with much in modern textbooks, simply needs to be forgotten as it’s complex and useless for a modern world. The big problem is that we have  imperfectly forgotten much information and need to completely forget it. Here is Asimov describing a section from the textbook on cloth measurement in his essay [1]:

Did you know that 2 1/4 inches make a “nail” ? Well, they do. And 16 nails make a yard; while 12 nails make an ell.

No. wait a while. Those 12 nails (27 inches) make a  Flemish ell. It takes 20 nails (45 inches) to make an English ell, and 24 Nails (54 inches) to make a French ell. Then, 16 nails plus 1 1/5  inches (37 1/5 inches) make a Scotch ell.

Furthermore, almost every piece of goods is measured in its own units…..

Asimov offers examples in excruciating detail, a firkin of butter, a punch of prunes, a fother of lead and a stone of butcher’s meat. Pike’s book even introduces complex arithmetic to take into account the strange groups of values that make up each unit. I’m saving you from a detailed explanation, because if you never learn this, you will not have to forget it all—as is my desire. After going through numerous examples of how to add odd numbered groups and the advantage of using multiples of 10 (i.e. 1000) as an alternative Isaac states:

It so happens that there is a system of measurement based exclusively on ten in this world. It is called the metric system and it is used all over the civilized world except for certain English-speaking nations such as the United States and Great Britain.

By not adopting the metric system, we waste our time for we gain nothing, not one thing, by learning our own measurements. The loss of time (which is expensive indeed) is balanced by not one thing I can imagine…..

There are those, of course, who object to violating our long-used cherished measures. They have given up cooms and chaldrons but imagine there is something about inches and feet and pints and quarts and pecks and bushels that is “simpler” or “more natural” than meters and liters.

There may even be people who find something dangerously foreign and radical …. in the metric system—yet it was the United States that lead the way [with decimal currency].


We must make room for expanding knowledge, or at least make as much room as possible. Surely it is as important to forget the old and useless as it is to learn the new and important.

Forget it, I say, forget it more and more.  Forget it!

But why am I getting so excited? No one is listening to a word I say.

Dr Asimov’s Birthday was on January 2.  RIP Gentle Doctor.

[1] Asimov, Isaac,  Asimov On Numbers, 1977 Chapter 9. The essay originally was published in March 1964 in  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

5 thoughts on “To Learn Metric Forget Ye Olde English

  1. Maven, you may have mentioned this in earlier blogs, but we also have knots in our measurement lingo. A knot is 1.852 km/h. Used in aviation, maritime and meteorology also I understand. When I was taking flying lessons I learned to use knots for plotting time and distance and for airspeed. Just one more hold over that should be eliminated for a uniform system of measurement.

    • Hi Woodie, you’re bang-on when you say that knots and nautical miles have a strong hold on nautical and aeronautical navigation. However, I would draw a line in the sand between the imperial system and nautical miles. Whereas using units like feet for altitude and fathoms for depth are distinctly English in origin, nautical miles are a form of measure that is much more international, so I would put them in a category of their own.

      Of course, the sole reason for the existence of nautical miles is the antiquated sexagesimal units we use to measure angle – the degree, the minute, and the second – such that a nautical mile is a minute of arc on a Great Circle of the Earth’s surface. It makes things very, very easy for navigators when they use a standard Mercator projection. If we measured latitudes and longitudes in gons rather than degrees, the kilometer would instantly supplant the nautical mile as the prime unit of navigation, with 1 km = 1 cgon. However, gons have pretty much died out, and the BIPM does not recognize them even as non-SI units.

      That said, before WW2, most aviation outside the US and the British Empire was entirely metric, with altitudes given in meters and airspeeds indicated in km/h. Ever looked inside the cockpit of a Messerschmidt? I have. All the instruments were completely metric. The CIS and China are still more or less completely metric in terms of aviation. In Europe and Canada, most gliders operate with metric-only instrumentation. It’s perfectly possible to fly and sail safely with metric units. Nautical miles and knots are probably the only pre-metric units (besides degrees) that are accepted for use with the SI, and they do have their value. However, I agree with you – let’s retire them, and break out the shiny new km-calibrated altimeters.

      • The gon or grad, however, suffers from the same inconsistency that, for example, the degree Celsius has: it is based on hundreds; which, as long as the preferred SI prefixes are based mainly on thousands, isn’t so optimal, nor elegant.

        (Hundreds would be OK if the prefixes were in the form of 10^+-2n (hecto, myria, etc. etc.); but today they are in the preferred form of 10^+-3n (kilo, mega, etc. etc.), which seems to be here to stay: so, all units should be as coherent as possible with this choice.)

        Probably, anyway, it would be better to measure angles simply in turns:

        … and thus milliturns for smaller angles (BTW, very interesting also the “tau proposal”).

        Compass points for navigation would of course have to remain, as they seem to be quite practical.

        • Addendum: Of course, all this also means that milli- should always be preferred over centi-, as a prefix.

  2. As a 7th and 8th Math teacher I have been switching to metric where ever possible. I threw away all my old English 12 inch rulers. I also threw away my yard sticks and replaced them with meter sticks. Now when measuring small items we used the rulers I purchased from the U.S. Metric Association web site. They are mm only.

    We did a scale project last week using these new rulers and I noticed something different this time around.THE RESULTS WERE MUCH BETTER. Yes, I meant to yell. In the past the students measured the 18:1 models metal car models in inches and converted the measurement to feet for the real car. This time around the students measured in mm multiplied by 18 and then converted to meters. The results were so much better than in the past. I asked the students if they thought it was easier with metric after I explained what they would have had to do if they used inches and feet. They all agreed. One student even asked why do we still use inches and feet they are so dumb. I told it was their job to fix it. My generation failed in their attempt to convert. It was up to them to make the change so that their children are not burden with our current system. Just think no Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion problems on the state standards tests.

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